THE FOUNDER – DULL BIOPIC OF THE BUSINESS VULTURE RAY KROC IN A WASTE OF KEATON’S TALENTS

SHORT TAKE:

Dry and uninvolving biopic, despite Michael Keaton's efforts, about Ray Kroc, the avaricious business predator, who co-opted then outsted the McDonald brothers from their own creation.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Limited to adults and older teens only because some language and Kroc's lack of interpersonal and business ethics. The mechaniations of enterprise – good and bad – might be interesting to business and history students.

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LONG TAKE:

If you can not be a good example be a horrible warning. I'm not sure which one the makers of The Founder intended it to be.

The Founder is a 2016 biopic about Ray Kroc, the man who made McDonald's a multi-bazillion dollar enterprise and its distinct Golden Arches logo one of the most recognizable symbols on (literally) the entire planet.

McDonald's was a singular hamburger restaurant – one of, if not the first, walk-up, designed by the McDonald brothers, Maurice and Richard (John Carroll Lynch of Jackie – see my review of Jackie here – and Nick Offerman from Parks and Recreation). Their's was a unique concept, carefully designed and laid out, innovative and revoluitionary in the Drive-In-car hop-predominated culture of America in the 1950's. Richard and Maurice, had created this style as a money saver – no car hops, broken glassware, or dallying hoodlums. People stood in line to get great tasting burgers, in throw away packaging, in a clean family friendly environment. What the McDonald brothers saw as the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, Ray Kroc saw as a golden goose just waiting to be plucked.

SPOILERS

The film starts with Ray as an unsuccessful multi-spindle milkshake salesman who happens upon this singular successful enterprise and recognizes the brilliant business model for what it is. The McDonald brothers think "small" but Ray believes in BIG. And the McDonald brothers don't know to whom they are linking their futures when they sign a contract with Ray to establish franchises. Ray's personal motto is "Persistence" and he uses his formidable variation on it to: slowly negotiate, maneuver and leverage their business right out from under them, steal the wife of one of his franchise partners, leave his own wife, and cheat the McDonald brothers out of the royalty fees to which they were promised when they inevitably are forced to sell out to Ray.

This is NOT a nice man, but then neither was Vito Corleone in The Godfather Trilogy or Loki from The Avengers movies. And people generally love both the Corleone patriarch and Thor's sly brother as guilty pleasures.  But what the latter two had in abundance, Ray Kroc, as portrayed in The Founder, had none of – and that was a relatable personality.

The Founder plays out like the dramatically filmed version of a documentary. It is not filmed in documentary style but is written as a series of facts filmed in vignettes. The movie is seen through Ray Kroc's eyes in a terrific performance by Michael Keaton but only in the visual sense. By that I mean, we see what happens as Kroc himself might remember them but we, the audience, get no real feel for seeing AS Kroc might have seen life. We are never given opportunity to see the world as Ray Kroc sees it. We only hear him voice the sentiments of his own avarice without understanding what it was that drove him to HAVE those views. No back story, no moments of reflection, no knowing how he reconciles with or justifies to himself what he has done to others. Certainly, no King Claudius self-tormenting moments from Hamlet, wherein the character knows the wrong he has done and would like to repent but is unable because of his own weaknesses for the things he has acquired through those same outrageous acts.

Keaton has been Batman, Bird Man, Vulture in Spiderman Homecoming, and Mr. Mom – all variations on super heroes with a dark but redemptively inclined streak in one form or another (even his character in the comedy Mr Mom gets within a hair's breadth of the dark action of cheating on his wife but comes to his senses in the nick of time). So playing an appealing villain would not be his first rodeo. Unfortunately, the script gives him little to do but posture and go through the motions. Once he establishes his unsuccessful frustrated character then woos the McDonald brothers, the rest of the movie is merely a checklist of events. Expand the business – check. Buy land – check. Meet his business associate's wife and show interest – check. Use innovations, like dried instant milkshake without the McDonald brothers permission – check. Tell the brothers he has more money and so he can do what he wants and they are  out – check. Movie over – check.

Don't get me wrong. Keaton does his best with this dry script. He even manages a few moments which gives a glimmer of what the movie should have been. For example, there's one scene where he joins his future second wife, Joan (Linda Cardellini from Daddy's Home and Avengers: Age of Ultron) at a piano where she works and, right in front of her husband, manages to woo her by singing with her. And the first scenes which show his woeful attempts to sell his multi-mixers demonstrate his gift of gab which is falling on deaf ears. I mean, his pitch was so good I was almost ready to buy one! But, alas, his potential buyers were noT so convinced. So you come to understand why, when he sees this extremely profitable "hamburger joint" his mouth starts watering and not just for the French fries. But for every one of the few interesting scenes there are several astonishingly bland ones, such as when he announces, as they eat a silent dinner at their kitchen table, to his all but ignored wife, Ethel, (Laura "Jurassic Park"  Dern), that he wants a divorce. She just puts down her fork, the camera pans back and away from her, the end. (Huh?) The audience pretty much knew this was coming, but instead of Beatrice Straight's Oscar winning 5 minutes in Network where she reads her husband the riot act for walking out on her, we get something more akin to the emotional vacuum of Dave as he eats alone in the empty house in 2001.

This is a humorless look at the man. Kroc states as his personal philosophy to the McDonald brothers at one point – "If my competitor was drowning I'd stick a hose in his mouth." So "business is business" is obviously a manifesto with Kroc. But that does not mean this arid POV has to be reflected in the way the movie is written. I can't help but wonder how much better this movie would have been with a Cohen Brothers-style hero in the lead.

In short, this is a flat film whose basic moral could be stated as: "If you are persistent enough you can have everything you want and never have to suffer the consequences of your evil actions." Kroc stole his partners' business, his friend's wife, and cheated the McDonald brothers out of hundreds of millions of dollars of royalties —- because he could. But we ultimately don't care. We don't know the abused well enough to empathize and we are givennothing with which to relate to the main character.  It's an unpalatable story which wastes the considerable talents of Keaton.

So……….next time, Keaton wants to play a vulture, I'd much rather it be one in a Spiderman sequel.

BRANAGH’S MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS – The Perfect Movie

I have seen a lot of filmed murder mysteries from drama to slapstick: Thin Man series, China Town, Minority Report, The Usual Suspects, The Maltese Falcon, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Clue, Rear Window, Scoop, Murder by Death, even the occasional Dr Who and the TV shows Columbo, Grimm and Perry Mason. There’s something truly satisfying about solving a puzzle with the end result the protecting of the innocent and the meting out of justice. But my favorite has always been Murder on the Orient Express. A group of strangers stuck on a snow bound train with a murdered man and a famous detective and one of them a murderer. A bit like Christie's Ten Little Indians but, to me, Orient Express has more pinache.

I’ve seen the 1974 version many times. Knowing the ending does nothing to undermine the enjoyment of watching the mystery unfold like a beautifully formed rose bud – all the parts slowly falling into place. Who wouldn’t like it?! With the star studded cast including the likes of     Albert (Bourne franchise) Finney, Sean (James Bond) Connery, Lauren (Humphrey Bogart’s wife) Bacall, Ingrid (Casablanca) Bergman, SIR John Gielgud, Anthony (Psycho) Perkins. The list goes on – it is a BIG cast.

But as good as the 1974 version was, it is only the amusing movie hors d’oeuvre to the cinematic banquet that is Kenneth Branagh’s 2017 Murder on the Orient Express. Not only is this the best rendition of a murder mystery I have ever seen, it is one of those rarest of birds – a perfect movie. Branagh brings brilliance to anything he undertakes – from Thor to Cinderella to    Hamlet* (ALL of which he directed). He is one of those auteurs, like Orson Welles and Woody Allen who can both star and direct in the same movie and create masterpieces.

Prudence, by defintiion, is the virtue of knowing the right thing to do at any given time. When you are someone who sees the subtle imperfections of the world this virtue becomes an obsession. In a detective this can be a superpower…and a curse. Such is the struggle of Branagh's Hercule Poirot. This kind of complex personality overlay onto an already brilliant screenplay is an example of what makes Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express special. It could have been refilmed as another lovely remake with modern celebrities. The last theatrical version was in 1974, as I have said, so it is due for a remake. But true to his genius and his respect for his audience, Branagh is not content with merely revamping an already rich treasure of a story but like Gershwin's ability to create a timeless song from a simple catchy line of music, Branagh takes a classically fun tale and reworks it into a presentation worthy of a Shakespearean telling.

As in the original, the premise is that a murder takes place on a train, which locomotive is almost immediately and Providentially caught in an avalanche of snow. The manager of the train, a good friend of Poirot's, implores Poirot to solve the mystery for him before the train is freed and the killer has an opportunity to escape. As well as catching a killer, he also (by the way) wishes to avoid the shame of scandal to the Orient Express from an unresolved atrocity committed aboard this regal moving institution.

Of all the movies I have ever reviewed this is the one about which I would be most loathe to commit a spoiler ……. so will not.

But I will say there are a few minor tweaks to the story, re-imagined by Michael Green from, obviously, the Agatha Chtistie novel of the same name. These changes work well, and add depth of character and intrigue to even Christie's fascinating creation. One such contribution is Branagh's Poirot which, while I will not go into detail, is a brilliantly satisfying choice which makes the usually taciturn and ascerbic character more approachable and likeable, aware of his own shortcomings and has a character arc which dovetails beautifully with the theme and complexities of the story.

If you have not read the book or seen the 1974 movie, which  by the way is very good, and are then fortunate enough to be able to see this 2017 version with virgin eyes, do NOT watch any trailers, see any interviews, read any opinions but go straight to the movie with childlike delight. If you ARE familiar with the story then go to revel in the brilliant directing. Branagh stages the film like a fairy tale with all the exotic detail that was Stamboul (Old Istanbul) in 1934 and the extreme elegance of the Orient Express which in its day was host to Princesses and Counts. The colors are bright, the costumes splendid reflections of the complex suspects. And enjoy the sheer artistry of Branagh direction as he shoots with elegance equal to the time and place. He uses mirrors, windows and framing to fracture images hinting at characterizations; overhead shots to both reveal and hide clues at the same time. Dramatic events are bold and large as life; intimate scenes feel almost intrusive into private tensions and personal conflicts.   At turns I laughed out loud and was brought to tears.

And Branagh knows how to work an ensemble cast. From the musical rendition of Shakespeare's Love's Labours Lost to the light comedy A Midwinter's Tale to Hamlet with its massive star studded cast, he knows when to shine and when to hold back and always gives every member of his cast ample opportunity to be memorably in the forefront.

Every one of the actors does a superlative job. Not suprising as any director who could inspire a good Shakesepearean performance out of Keanu Reeves in Much Ado About Nothing could get a good perfromance out of even a dust mop. But most of these guys do not need such inspiration as they are already accomplished actors.

It is my honor and delight to mention each of the main performers:

Kenneth Branagh, director and lead, plays Poirot himself. I have seen enough Branagh to know that if he thought someone else could have done a better job he would have hired him. I'll tell you this is the best Poirot or classic detective of this genre I have seen anywhere.

Johnny (Jack Sparrow) Depp plays Edward Ratchett, American gangster and suspicious ne'er-do-well who brings a frightening intensity to what otherwise could have been a cookie cutter stereotype.

Sir Derek Jacobi – friend and collaborator of Branagh in a number of previous outings from the aforementioned Hamlet to Henry V to Cinderella, plays Edward Henry Masterman, British manservant to Ratchett. Jacobi is a knighted Shakespearean thespian who lends a graceful sympathy to Masterman.

Josh (Beauty and the Beast) Gad plays Hector MacQueen, Ratchett's assistant, lends a surprisingly effective though odd combination of Bogart and Peter Lorre from Casablanca into this character of questionable motives.

Daisy (Rey from Star Wars) Ridley plays Mary Debenham, stepping away from her interstellar Jedi to bring a singular classy elegance to her role as governess.

Leslie Odom portrays Dr. Arbuthnot, a man of many surprsing talents with skill and credibility.

 Dame Judy Densch – M, Shakespearean actress of tremendous dignity and comportment – continues to demonstrate her command of her art in even one of the smaller roles as the elderly Princess Dragomiroff.

Willem Dafoe (Green Goblin from Spiderman, Platoon, Odd Thomas, voice of Gill in Finding Nemo) equally at home in comedy or drama, as villain or hero, brings his many talents to bare for  the German professor Gerhard Hardman.

 Olivia Coleman is solid as Princess  Dragomiroff's personal maid.

Manuel Garcia (Magnificent 7) Rulfo is charming as Biniamino Marquez the Italian born newly Americanized citizen car salesman.

Marwan Kenzari is Pierre Michel, the ubiquitous conductor.

Michele Pfeiffer redeems herself from her awful participation in the terrible Mother! as the wealthy manhunting widow, commanding and entertaining in every scene she's in.

Luc Boynton portrays the fragile ephermeal Countess.

Sergei Polunin is almost comic relief in his intensity as the tightly wound Count, protective and attentive husband of the Countess.

Tom Bateman plays Bouc, playboy, friend of Poirot and ultimately responsible representative of the owners of the Express with style and contagious enthusiasm.

Penelope (Pirates of the Caribbean, Nine) Cruz, in a surprising turn plays Pilar Estravados, the intense missionary with an unexpected tough streak.

So go see this masterpiece of film making. Whether you have never heard of Agatha Christie before or if you've got the story memorized from a previously favorite version, you will more than be rewarded for your time in viewing this crown jewel retelling of the ultimate murder mystery.

* Branagh's Hamlet is the most spectacularly filmed Hamlet ever to grace the screen and the ONLY filmed theatrical unabridged Hamlet so far in existence.